Airplane travel with kids: 20 tips for maintaining your sanity

July 6, 2018

Only six months after the birth of our third child, my husband and I decided to do something spontaneous and took the whole family on a trip to Europe. Many said we were crazy and stalked our Facebook pages daily in hopes of watching hilarious stories of jet lag and catastrophe unfold. Much to their dismay, our trip was relaxing and our flights uneventful. Friends and family begged to know how we pulled it off.

Some say I’m lucky to have three of the most easy-going children in the world, but most people fail to see that our success is mostly thanks to the amount of meticulous planning we’ve done prior to any trip … and maybe just a little bit of luck. I’ve put together 20 of my favorite tips for flying with kids to ensure your family, too, has an enjoyable, successful trip.

1. Life’s not perfect, so don’t expect your trip to be.

Very rarely is life as wild as our imagination can be. So imagine the worst-case scenario and put a plan in place before it happens. If you’re prepared for delays, a screaming toddler, an infant with explosive diapers and lost luggage, then you, too, will survive a flight.

2. Find credit cards that will give back.

Unlike the Bucket List Family, we normal folk don’t have sponsors to pay our way as we go globetrotting. Instead, we carefully plan what credit cards will maximize our everyday spending. This allows us to obtain half, if not all, of our tickets with points. Make sure you get a card with no foreign transaction fees that can be used when traveling overseas.

3. Time is money.

Spend the money on a direct flight. Each layover is an additional opportunity for the airlines to lose your luggage and for your children to lose their patience. We deliberately choose an aircraft where each child has a window and adult the aisle. This will keep baby fingers from getting pinched by the rolling food cart and will make their escape a harder feat.

4. Make an arrival plan.

Prior to booking, you’ll want to consider your hotel check-in time, or you’ll be doomed to sit wasting time in a foreign airport or forced to sightsee with luggage in tow. For transit from the airport, look for electronic options such as Uber or G7 Taxi (common in popular international destinations, like Paris) to avoid the need for a cash transaction.

5. Hype them up with positive energy.

Are you an anxious, over-prepping, scared-of-heights flyer like my husband? If so, keep that ball of nervous energy to yourself. The last thing you want to do is project all of your anxieties onto your kids. Spend the days prior to the flight talking about the excitement of the trip, like seeing the airplanes up close, eating their favorite candy on board and the anticipation of an inflight movie marathon.

6. Set expectations for the journey.

Like a football coach before a big game, you’ll want to lay out the details of your day for optimal success. Explain how airport security works and how to handle a TSA random screening. Discuss what they may feel while onboard, such as ears popping, turbulence, controlling the volume of their voice with headphones on or not kicking the seat in front of them. The person in front of them will greatly appreciate it.

7. Pack light.

My family of five just did two weeks in France out of one suitcase and, much to the surprise of all our friends and family, our pictures proved we did not repeatedly wear the same outfit.  Dragging an entourage of suitcases, backpacks, one stroller and a car seat while keeping kids close by can ruin your day pretty quick. Take my word on this one: Less is more. I promise, no matter where you are going, they also have stores and a way to wash clothes. You can purchase anything you may need once you arrive. Also, invest in a digital luggage scale. Those overweight fees aren’t cheap, and you don’t want to repack luggage at airport check-in. That little gadget saved us from a nightmare situation on our latest return home from Paris.

8. Have a fully equipped carry-on.

Use a sturdy backpack to make sure everyone is prepared with an extra outfit and anything you may be devastated to be without should your suitcase fail to meet you at your destination. Bring a jacket for those arctic flights and enjoy it rolled up for a pillow if the temperature feels just right.

9. Know before you go.

While most airlines are family-friendly and allow for free car seats and stroller gate checks, not all airlines are created equal. Check your airline’s policies before booking. It may be cheaper to rent a car seat with your rental car than to haul it on board. If bringing a car seat, purchase a backpack so you’re hands-free to hold children, and your car seat will be protected in transit.

10. Get your steps in.

Once we’ve arrived at our gate, one grownup is allowed a few moments of solitude while the other takes the kids on “an adventure” to explore, touch all the things, watch the airplanes take off and land and burn off stored energy before a long flight. It is important that each partner gets those few moments alone to refocus and restore any lost patience. Use this time to hit the bathroom before you board the plane. Ever see a toddler try to pee in turbulence?

11. Take advantage of early boarding.

If you can’t pack lightly and require multiple carry-ons, use small children as an opportunity to board early and ensure your legroom is preserved by being one of the first families to get your bags settled into the overhead compartment. Every small advantage brings you one step closer to a successful flight.

12. Prepare for wardrobe malfunctions.

Nursing or baby-wearing mamas be warned: Traveling with an infant is all fun and games until you find yourself alone in a bathroom with a carry-on, a baby and a pair of pants that refuse to be pulled back up. Wear your favorite pair of leggings or yoga pants for easy ups and downs. Wear two shirts for easy on-demand feedings. One shirt goes up, while the tank top keeps my postpartum body out of sight of innocent bystanders.

13. Feed the animals.

Hangry people are the destroyers of fun. While I confess to numerous failures in motherhood, keeping a food-filled diaper bag is not one of them. I don’t leave home without a stock of healthy options, but I’m also not above buying my kids’ happiness with cheesy nuggets of goldfish and handfuls of M&Ms.

14. Bring comfortable headphones.

A decent pair of children’s headphones aren’t that expensive. Cheap earbuds will result in tears of frustration, and you’ll end up entertaining the kids for the rest of the flight. While most airlines are smart enough to provide an extensive selection of movies and games, some of the older model airplanes provide little more than a view of the tray table. Bring a few new toys, coloring books or an electronic device loaded with new games. Keep them hidden until after takeoff, as the novelty of new toys will only take you so far.

15. Smile and use your manners, even when your kids forget.

“Pleases” and “thank yous” go a lot further than an apology bag of cheap earplugs and lollipops. People expect children will cry on a flight because of air pressure or because they are tired. How you and your children treat your fellow passengers will usually determine how they treat you. And be polite to the flight attendants; you never know how much you may need them if things go awry.

16. Stay sober.

While the mini-mes bring us great joy, the stress of carting kids across the continent or the world can be enough to drive someone to drink. But if someone has a problem, it’s best to be able to handle it sober. Save that glorious cocktail for your successful arrival.

17. Keep them close.

When I was but a naive, one-child parent, I used to silently judge families with kid leashes. After having my second child, I quickly threw all previous judgments in the trash. Find something that suits your needs and keeps your child close to you; an umbrella stroller, kid leash or a baby carrier are all great options.

18. Pack it in and pack it out.

Wait until all passengers have unloaded from the plane. Use this time to check for any and all belongings. No one wants to start their trip by losing a blankie or their favorite stuffed animal. As an added bonus, your child can view the cockpit and talk to the pilot after all the other guests have exited.

19. Give them purpose.

While vacation can be a wild and adventurous time, there are many moments of travel downtime that result in a symphony of “I’m bored.” Beat them to the punch by planning activities to occupy their minds. Try these:

  1. Treat flight attendants and pilots like celebrities, seeking them out around every corner. Your kids will be so busy playing paparazzi, they’ll hardly notice the distance from one terminal to the next.

  2. An inexpensive camera can make even the most boring day fun as they find fun things to photograph. You’ll also love the candid shots they capture.

  3. Put them in charge of finding your terminal and gate. Make sure you have ample time to redirect, if necessary.

20. Always be flexible.

Most importantly: Don’t forget to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. After all, you’re on vacation!

Read next: Tips for surviving summer travel with kids


Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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